As he lined up opposite Bowling Green’s right tackle early in the third quarter Saturday, Maryland football’s Jesse Aniebonam tapped his back foot as he anticipated Falcons quarterback Jarret Doege’s snap.
When it came, Aniebonam broke upfield, shoved off his blocker and charged down Doege, throwing him to the ground for a nine-yard sack. The Terps linebacker stomped toward the sideline and thrashed his arms, hyped for his first sack since suffering a broken ankle in last year’s season opener.
For a defense that struggled mightily to pressure opposing quarterbacks in 2017, Aniebonam’s return is a welcome sight. Early in the 2018 season, the redshirt senior has been a large part of a unit that held Bowling Green scoreless in the second half to help secure a 2-0 start.
“The sack is the greatest feeling in football to me,” Aniebonam said. “I missed that feeling. Being able to get it, right off the bat again, the second game, is just the best feeling in the world.”
In 2016, Aniebonam led Maryland with 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Without their premier pass rusher in 2017, the Terps finished with 16 sacks as a team, tying for 12th in the Big Ten.
Aniebonam had a slow start this year. For much of the offseason, he trained in a yellow non-contact jersey, so he needed time to adjust to the speed and physicality of gameplay.
After failing to record a tackle in the season opener against Texas, Aniebonam had three tackles against Bowling Green. He displayed an explosiveness as he turned the corner for his third-quarter sack, again looking like the player who had 30 quarterback hurries in 2016.
“Getting all that rust off from not playing in so long is what really helped me at the end of the day,” Aniebonam said. “I’m really getting back to my normal self and getting better every day.”
Maryland’s defense played a key role in interim head coach Matt Canada’s second career win Saturday.
After quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome fumbled the ball at midfield in the second quarter, Maryland’s defense forced a three-and-out. As the defenders ran off the field, they told Canada, “We got you.”
In his previous and more natural role as offensive coordinator, Canada hardly paid attention to defensive series. Getting a stop like that was “a big, big deal,” he said, as it took pressure off the offense following the turnover.
“We were stumbling on offense, and I think [the defensive stop] shows the sign of a really good football team,” Canada said. “Our defensive players are doing a great job, defensive staff’s doing a great job. We’re happy with them.”
The defense got stronger as the game progressed. One week after forcing three turnovers late to seal an upset victory over the Longhorns, the Terps shut down the Falcons in the second half, allowing the offense to score 35 unanswered points.
Multiple defenders stood out in the 45-14 win, but Aniebonam’s play was the most promising, given the road he undertook to return to an opponent’s backfield.
“I felt loads better,” Aniebonam said. “I’m just ready for more.”